The life and Naval career of Admiral Sir Philip C. Henderson Durham have been told at length elsewhere (see references below). Here we shall focus on those times and events that directly connect Durham to Portsmouth and these can be summarised under the headings of 'The Royal George', 'Port Admiral at Portsmouth' and 'Land Owner on Portsea Island'.
Philip Charles Durham was the third son of James Calderwood Durham, laird of Largo and as such he was destined for the army or the navy. His father opted for the navy as there were no commissions to purchase. So, at the age of just fourteen years Durham found himself onboard the Trident under Captain John Elliott, whose patronage had been sought by Durham's mother, bound for New York. The good fortune which was to follow Durham for his entire life first had a significant effect when he came to the attention of Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt who took Durham with him as signals officer when he assumed command of the Victory in 1781.
The following year Kempenfelt and Durham transferred to the Royal George which on the 29th of August 1782 lay at anchor a mile from the entrance to Portsmouth harbour. Their ship formed part of Lord Howe's fleet which was preparing to set sail for Gibraltar. During the loading of supplies it was noticed that the starboard water cock was faulty and the only way to replace it was to heel the boat to larboard so that the pipe rose above sea level. To achieve this the heavy guns on the starboard side were moved to the larboard. All went well for an hour but unbeknown to the officers on board casks of rum and other supplies were also being stacked on the larboard side thereby exacerbating the heel.
Durham came on duty as officer of the watch at 8 o'clock and was assured by the first lieutenant George Sanders that all was well. The first person to notice something was seriously wrong was the carpenter Thomas Williams who reported his fears to an officer on watch who dismissed him as scare-mongering. Williams returned shortly and repeated his concerns and was again dismissed. By the time the artificers working on the water pipe yelled out that the ship was heeling too far it was too late, the ship rolled over and over 900 of those aboard perished, including Kempenfelt who had been asleep in his cabin.
The subsequent court martial, presided over by Vice-Admiral Barrington, made little effort to assign blame. Historians, however, have not been so reticent. The available evidence is limited to the court martial transcript and the testimony of James Ingram who survived the accident but did not write his account until 20 years after the event. In it he certainly implied that the lieutenant who dismissed the carpenter's fears was responsible for not taking action sooner but unfortunately he couldn't remember the name of the officer. Durham who was one of very few officers to survive the disaster was exhonerated by the court martial which was no doubt influenced by Durham's own report. Almost inevitably though, some suspicion attached itself to him; arguably his reported arrogance and self-centredness could easily have led him to dismiss a mere tradesman's suggestion. But whatever the truth of the matter the incident had no lasting effect on Durham's career.
Indeed Durham went from strength to strength and in 1805 reached one of the highpoints of his professional life when he sailed as Captain of the Defiance into battle alongside Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. The rest of his career was spent ascending the naval hierarchy in which he eventually attained the rank of Admiral. On the way he served as Member of Parliament for Queenborough in 1830 and Devizes in 1834. In 1836 he became naval Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, a post he held for three years, during which time the navy was taking the advent of steam power ever more seriously. Durham's period in office and residence at Admiralty House in the Dockyard passed without leaving any notable achievements.
In private life he married two women, both of whom were rather more wealthy than himself, Lady Charlotte Bruce (d. 1816) and Anne Isabella Henderson. The latter was an heiress who had acquired a great deal of land around Milton on Portsea Island from a distant relative Mary White who had inherited it from her father Thomas White, four times Mayor of Portsmouth, who died in 1797. It may have been 19C convention or perhaps indicative of the domineering attitude of Durham but in his Tithe Map survey of Portsea Island in 1845 Thomas Ellis Owen ascribed the ownership of these lands to Admiral Durham rather than to his wife Anne.
Anne died on 18th December 1844, just three months before her husband who passed away on 2nd April 1845. Interestingly, the lands and farms at Milton and Eastney were auctioned on Thursday October 9th 1845 under the will of Lady Henderson Durham who plainly did not leave them to her husband. It is not known what happened to the proceeds of the sale as the Durhams had died childless, but at least they left behind a legacy for the people of Portsmouth in that they had in 1840 donated the land in the centre of Milton on which St. James's Church was built.
"Trafalgar Captain" by Hilary L. Rubinstein
"The Loss of the Royal George" on History in Portsmouth
The White Family on History in Portsmouth